Relating with Others during Difficult Times

How do we respond during difficult times?

Jesus, the most brilliant and practical teacher I know, gave us superb insight on how he asks us to relate to others to help them in difficult times (Matthew 7:1-12).

In this passage, Jesus deals with the fourth spiritual virus that infects our faith-communities. If we approach life as if we certainly “see right” in life, we we taint our relationships and diminish community health. This virus imposes on others how we see life since we act as if we “see right.” When we find them falling short of our standards of practice, we judge them, looking down on them.

This passage may be the most significant passage in the Bible in its impact on me in community life. Three different times the Spirit progressively opened up aspects of this passage that I had never seen before in key seasons of conflict to train me in Jesus’ ways of relating to people.

Overall Theme: Judging, Responding as if We “See Right”

Judging often flows out of legalism. Law-keeping develops our personal standards and we falsely believe we stay right with God by doing these (the first virus). It’s a small step to then impose our private set of rules on others, thus judging (the second virus). When we judge others, we elbow in on God’s exclusive territory, playing li’l god. Here are a couple of telltale signs of those who are probably hooked by legalism expressed through judging.

  • They make many assumptions. If we believe we “see right,” it’s a natural step to project how we would think in a given situation on others.
  • They often have a right/wrong view of life. And they are
  • They often make excuses. If “seeing right” is so crucial, their inner balance scale produces an excuse to offset conviction from their conscience. Our conscience can only accuse or excuse (Romans 2:15). If they were to question their standards, their house of cards would begin to collapse so they make excuses for bad actions (or blame shift).
  • They are highly critical (although maybe justifying with “I shoot straight!”) No one has the exact same inner sets of standards, rules or outward practices as they do.

Judging has to do with playing God…

…when only One can accurately judge and fully love simultaneously. When we judge another, we do at least three things.

  • First, we act as judge by using our personalized standards to evaluate others, as if our rules and practices are the infallible standard. This goes beyond observable actions to project their motives.
  • Second, we deliberate as jury when we take our personalized standard and find fault where the other has not measured up to the letter of our law in their outward actions, and unfortunately often in their inner, unseen motives.
  • Third, we are executioners by looking down on them, often criticizing them, focusing on our perception of their failures for not matching our do & don’t list.

Therefore, we become judge, jury and executioner,…

…although only One can judge and love simultaneously, the Father, Son and Spirit. When we judge, we are no longer free to be ourselves and own our experiences. Our ability to experience life and to give life away is severely hampered. No wonder this is a community virus.

By contrast, observing, discerning or evaluating differs dramatically from judging. Otherwise, Jesus would not command us to inspect the fruit in people in the next section. We observe as we see their outward responses without projecting inward motives on them or looking down on them for what we see. How else can we see a splinter if we don’t observe (7:5)?

Different does not mean less than so even if their responses differ from ours, no distain is associated with observing, only a desire to serve. So, observing does not look down on the other from a position of superiority like judging does. Observing with discernment seeks to bring them up by bringing what we think we may detect to our Father and asking what He is doing.

First Movement, Searching Parable (7:3-5)

Jesus uses a humorous story to teach a profound truth that searches our hearts deeply, if we are open. Mr. Plank sees a real splinter in the eye of Brother Splinter yet at first is unaware of the 2X4 he is carrying. The parable implies two possible community responses.

How does a caring Christian respond like Jesus would?

With the faulty community response, we see the splinter in the other and first go quickly to serve and to help our brother. “I see right so it’s about their splinter.” This is judging.

“Wait, Jim, are you saying something is wrong with my desire to serve the person?” No, certainly not with serving. Jesus focuses on how to serve without judging. Jesus is saying if we first respond to remove the splinter, we will end up judging them, not serving them, no matter what our intent is.

When we first go to help, the parable humorously brings to mind the picture of Mr. Plank bending over close to help the person. Instead, he smacks Brother Splinter with the large beam of his standard of responding rightly, even if his standard can be supported by Bible verses. Since judging normally flows from a hidden legalism lurking within, it blinds us to our own faults. Look at Jesus’ words closely. Jesus says first look within us for any hidden beam before we attempt to help the other. Jesus says this, not me.

“We tried to become the judge, and we ended up being judgmental instead; we lost our ability to experience life and each other by exercising the very judgment we desired. We stopped obeying God’s design [and] made up our own. [In] other words, Adam and Eve tried to become God, and in the process they lost themselves”
(Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend, “How People Grow”).

With the correct response, we also see their splinter. However, we first view their splinter as a possible mirror reflecting our beam. We don’t want to project any of our stuff on them. We first spend time with the Spirit of God to discern if we are viewing the reflection of our beam, even if they have a real splinter. First “pay attention” to our own inner life and deal with our two by four.

If we don’t, kind, loving Jesus calls us a hypocrite. The word means a “play actor.” In those days, actors put masks over their faces and pretended to be someone they were not. Jesus is always after authenticity. If we stumble here, we lack self-awareness. We possess a false view of who we are, not wanting to be “exposed.”

First look at ourselves.

If not, we will judge them, projecting our standards on them while thinking all the time we are serving. This religiosity is the height of hypocrisy.

Then we go to serve and help.

But how do we go? In the passage, Jesus doesn’t instruct us how to approach the person. However, Jesus has already instructed us to treat others without anger or harsh words (5:21-26) and with love (5:44) and gentleness (5:37-42). Be careful if any of these traits are missing since their absence are marks of legalism (the first virus).

And Paul gives us clear instruction on how to respond to those hooked by sin.

We respond with gentleness, kindness, the humility of being teachable. We trust God to change them and so approach with caution that we do not fall into a trap of sin while seeking to serve them (Galatians 6:1-5; 2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Come with a gentle and humble heart like Jesus (Matthew 11:29). Don’t come with a “the Lord told me that you…,” even if He did. If you feel that Jesus told you to go, first check for your beam. Then follow the Scriptural admonition to run your thoughts by another mature person to test them (1 Corinthians 14:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Recognize that we now only see and know in part (1 Corinthian 13:9). We live in community and must submit to community.

We may have more to learn through this event than we know!

When our sole desire is to serve their highest and best, this frees us from most judging. However, I’ve read good commentators who say this passage teaches us that Jesus teaches not to help others with their splinter. They miss the entire point of the parable. How can Jesus be any clearer? Jesus calls us to love one another like He does, which means going with clearer vision to attempt to help.

“…and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5b, emphasis).

If Brother Splinter is wise, he will become wiser and add to his learning (Proverbs 9:9-10).

However, what if Brother Splinter says, no, I don’t want to hear anymore.” How do you respond when you are sure you have truth that will help a person you care deeply for?

Listen to their “no!” If we keep on correcting a person who is not open, we invite insults and incur abuse (Proverbs 9:7-8). We are not their Master (Romans 14:4), but their brother or sister in Christ.

Second Movement, “No Barging In” (7:6)

7:6 puzzled me for decades. As I began to understand that 7:1-12 is a unified passage, Proverbs 9:7-10 shed light on Matthew 7:6. Let me give you my best shot at unpacking the dog and the hog and the sacred and the pearls. Then wrestle with the passage yourself to decide.

So, how do we treat others who refuse to listen to truth from us, still loving them like Jesus without judging?

Genesis 3 describes the twofold response of our ancestors in the Garden, hiding and hurling blame, flight or fight. When we bump up against a wall in our relationships, the temptation is to either run and give up, or to fight and overcome. Are either of those two responses your normal go-to when you run into a relational wall?

Jesus has a better way; the way Jesus loves others.

Don’t fight to overcome their resistance and barge in. Respect them by honoring their wish (second movement). Don’t run away from the insight God gave you and give up. Stay actively engaged, yet without words of correction or criticism. With prayer and full acceptance of where and who he is, go vertical over Brother Splinter’s head and beyond the problem as we share our weight with our Abba Father (third movement).

The connection seems to be this. Verses 3-5 identify the act of loving like Jesus as first removing our plank, then going to help remove the splinter. We approach like Paul encourages in 2 Timothy 2:24-26. We come without quarreling and with kind, gentle instruction, trusting God to change them at the heart level.

The second movement of this unified teaching provides further insight if the person refuses to acknowledge that he or she has a splinter. Jesus may have been thinking of Proverbs 9:7-10 in this cryptic verse 6. Although we approach with the hope that the person is “wise” and will embrace help, we also recognize that some may respond in this circumstance as “mockers.” They reject correction and turn on the messenger with abuse if we keep pressing in.

Although dogs and hogs are both unclean animals, we miss the point when we go to uncleanness. Jesus is teaching about not judging. For us to call Brother Splinter unclean would at least border on judging.

The point is that neither a dog or a hog is capable of appreciating either sacred truth or precious pearls. A dog and a hog only care about “what’s for supper?” The hog tramples the pearls of wisdom under foot and the dog turn and tears us to pieces because sacred truth is without value to a dog.

Have you ever been trampled or torn apart when you sought to help another?

Jesus Himself embodies the truth (John 14:6), so it’s only truth that Brother Splinter personally recognizes, acknowledges and embraces that changes him. Isn’t that also true of us when we entrusted ourselves to Christ? It’s the nature of truth that it cannot be forced on others. Yes, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Yet it’s not truth we know, but truth that is received that works to transform.

Despite John 8:32 being displayed prominently on court houses, it’s only the truth we “hold to” or embrace or put into practice by faith that frees us (see John 8:31, “disciples” are those who hear and do). Spoken truth has no magical quality to change unless it’s personally embraced. Truth cannot be forced on those who don’t have ears to hear at this moment. No matter how accurate, logical and compelling the truth. No matter how passionate, fervent and moving our delivery.

So, what do we do?

We go to Brother Splinter to help with his splinter after we have checked our own blind spots for hidden legalism or judging (the first and fourth virus). If he indicates he is not open, we STOP, in the middle of a great point if necessary (I’m still learning). He has the right (and the responsibility) to say “no.” God designed each of us to be the gatekeeper of our own hearts, even if our choice is unwise and to our harm.

We must honor Brother Splinter’s stop sign, whether in clear words, body language or an inner sense we have that he is not now open. If we don’t listen to Jesus here, he will turn and trample us under foot. Read Proverbs 9:7-10 and notice the parallels.

Let’s look at this crucial response from another angle. What is the answer to the question Cain posed to the Lord in Genesis 4:9, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” At the time, the Lord ignored the question because it was a smokescreen. However, I believe Paul answered the Cain-question in Galatians chapter 6. Puzzle over the question yourself for a bit before turning with me to Galatians 6.

Paul says…

…“YES, I am my brother’s keeper” in Galatians 6:1-2. When someone is caught in sin like Brother Splinter, if we are spiritual, restore. We “carry each other’s burdens,” which is loving others like Jesus does. Paul continues by answering NO, I am not my brother’s keeper.” Each must test their own lives personally (Galatians 6:4) since each is responsible as gatekeepers of their hearts. This is one of the many “Both/And creative tensions as we experience the mystery of godliness on our journey.

Applying this to our passage, I’m responsible to go and attempt to help (7:3-5). And Brother Splinter is free to reject my help (7:6) because he is ultimately responsible before the Lord.

Don’t barge in uninvited. Please put full weight on the “do not…” as a clear command from Jesus (prohibition). Respect and highly value the dignity of every image-bearer, even if the image is shattered because they don’t know Jesus personally.

Drive in their lane or run their personal “stop sign” to your own hurt. Even if we have valuable truth. We cannot force feed truth. You won’t be walking in the footsteps of your Master when you do.

When Brother Splinter is done listening, Jesus implores us to stop talking, regardless of how compelling our points or how passionate our delivery. Jesus treats us this way and we are to treat others the way Jesus does (Matthew 7:12).

So, are we then free to ignore the speck in Brother Splinter’s eye?

Third Movement, Prayer (7:7-11)

Certainly not!

God has called us to serve others in need. God gave us insight into Brother Splinter’s need and it’s a stewardship, even when he refuses our words. Brother Splinter is a fellow image-bearer, at times struggling on his journey, like us. We are still responsible, at least for a while until we feel a release. In this third movement (7:7-11), we go vertical, higher than Brother Splinter and the problem itself yet without any words to suggest improvement or change. At this time, Brother Splinter is not in a place to receive them, even if they are spot on.

Pray fervently for God to intervene.

Ask, seek and knock on the Father’s door…

…for Brother Splinter. The only other time similar words were used (Luke 11:1-13), the context is clearly prayer to the Father. The basis for this response is how much more the Father cares for us (7:9-11). God still calls us to an active ministry. Our ministry now focuses on words of prayer to God to intervene in His timing, instead of words to Brother Splinter.

And also ask, seek and knock for us

…that we might accept Brother Splinter where and how he is without judging. Ask that our gracious Father might reveal to us if we still have any remnant of a beam. God’s plan is for us to learn from one another in community.

“[Since] we are intended to live cooperatively and together in a sense of communal life, then conflict is something we must know how to navigate. [We all] need each other, and we are to take unity with one another very, very seriously. [Running] from conflict is to run from being intimate with others, and one begins to assume a very ‘surface level’ or closed-off posture with other people” (Mike Safford, “The Necessity of Community”).

Consummation, The Golden Rule (7:12)

Just as 5:48 is an overarching window into the kind of community life Abba Father and His Son are after, so 7:12 is such a window for this passage, the consummation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us this pithy command of how He lived while walking on the earth during His life here.

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets”
(Matthew 7:12, emphasis, NASB).

This is commonly called the “Golden Rule.” Similar proverbs have been found in most cultures throughout the world. I believe because the essence of the Golden Rule reflects the image of God, even if the image is shattered. Look how complete this is.

  • In every circumstance in life (“in everything”),
  • treat everyone we meet without regard to how they treat us (“do to others”)
  • the same way we want to be treated (“what you would have them do to you”), and
  • this is so all-inclusive, fulfilling the entire OT (“sums up the Law and the Prophets”).

“How do you want to be treated?”

I have also struggled with this verse, focusing for years on the complexity and variety of how I want others to treat me. Then it dawned on me that all these are fulfilled in one. “I want others to treat me just like Jesus treats me.” Suddenly life simplified!

Although be careful.

Don’t miss the surprising twist. I previously missed the twist when I put weight on how I wanted to be treated instead of on how I am to treat others. This is not an entitlement we impose on others. Jesus turns this from us to serve others in this same way, how Jesus treats us. The focus is “treat others how you would like to be treated.” Look through their lens of what they need and how they best receive, like for example with Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages.” Nothing in this verse is a right for me to demand from others, but a privilege to serve others.

Jesus’ call is to engage others like He engages me.

To do this, I need to begin to see people the way Jesus does. He could minister so well because He had no ego involved and because He saw people the way the Father does. 7:3-5 tell us to first strip off our own false views of ourselves. 7:12 takes this a step farther. Don’t allow our bias or prejudice or past skew our view of others. “See and know others like Jesus does.” Jesus saw perfectly; of course, we see in part so view this as a process. And as we persistently seek to see and know others as Jesus does, this will change us in the process. That’s how community works, iron sharpening iron.

Accept them where they are and seek to first understand. Don’t project our conclusions or standards on the other. Don’t lock them into their past (how they were at one time) or into the future (how we would like to see them one day). Love the other where they are and also love them too much to leave them there.

So, how does Jesus treat people?

Answer this one question and we have an all-inclusive response for how to treat others. In His last words to His disciples before His death, Jesus draws together His life on earth in His Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17.

How does Jesus charge His disciples to respond to others?

“A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another”
(John 13:34, emphasis).

Why does Jesus call this a “new” commandment, to love one another? It’s new because the world finally has a faultless Model of what fulfilling the Golden Rule looks like. “As Jesus…”, the first fully complete person since Adam fell in Genesis 3, “…so His followers.” Now, circling back to the Golden Rule, treating people like Jesus means we love others like Jesus does. We now have our marching orders how to express the present resurrected life of Jesus upward and outward to a thirsty world.

Now, let me bring this full circle. Jesus says to think carefully about how you want to be treated. Then treat others that way. Yet I suspect He is saying more.

God has also wired us so we tend to treat others similar to how we believe Jesus treats us. If this is true, relational conflicts shed powerful light on our hearts

“For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34).

If we judge in our inner heart, we will judge others because in some twisted way we have probably come to believe that Jesus judges us. If we are harsh, uncaring, barge in, lack compassion, unforgiveness, gentleness, etc., most likely this is also the secret God-image we have painted in our minds. So, discern carefully how we treat others and use it as a window to expose any false God-image we have within.

Remember, when we see a speck of dust in another, God may have more planned for us than for the other.

In summary,…

…sin is always an act of wrong judgment. To sin in this moment, we must recognize a legitimate, unfulfilled God-given need, and futilely attempt to satisfy it in our own way and in our own strength. At this moment, the person believes he or she is different than he or she really is because his/her value system is out of focus.

We tend to treat others how we believe Jesus treats us. So, the ultimate answer to this fourth virus is use every interaction with others as a mirror to reflect how we may believe Jesus treats us. Go to Scripture, particularly the Gospels, to renew our minds in respect to how Jesus treated others, and thus treats us.

Jesus says in the midst of difficult times,…

  1. Don’t judge because it diminishes us and the other.
  2. When we see something harmful in another, first check ourselves to see if this mirrors something in us. Then go to the other to discern if you can help.
  3. Don’t barge in and invade his lane without invitation.
  4. If he puts up a stop sign, heed it, stop passing on our pearls, and go over his head in prayer to the Father.
  5. Treat others the way Jesus treats you.

Learn to view such events as an opportunity to expose something in us so we can grow more like Jesus. Then every event, no matter how bitter or painful, could become a gift of a mirror from God because it’s a potential occasion for personal spiritual growth. Take such an approach as Jesus has sketched out and life simplifies itself. The one question we ask is:

“How does Jesus want to respond through me to this person?”

Two limiting factors rear their head. First, am I willing to live like Jesus, laying down my self-interests to serve the highest and best of others? Second, how well do I know Jesus? This is now a lifelong journey of learning to know Jesus better so we can respond more like Him. Continue to re-calibrate our spiritual inner compass from Scripture, particularly the NT, so we become more like Him.

Keep firmly in mind that Jesus began this discourse on freedom in community with the Beatitudes. Jesus models first soaking our lives with Jesus and other spiritual truth. Then when something arises that is contrary, discern, interrupt the wrong response and thinking and replace with Jesus’ approach to life. As Paul puts it: “put off,” then “put on” so we renew our minds to become more like Jesus (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Flood our hearts with the presence and provision of Jesus and His Father as we begin and end each day.

For a free PDF of an interactive Bible Study of the Sermon on the Mount with a bias towards putting truth into action, click on the link here or go to my “DiscipleMaking Companion” page under the PDF section towards the bottom.

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