Sometimes Fault Really Is on Only One Side

A friend is embroiled in a fiercely unhappy relationship at work. Someone she has worked with for years has turned on her, vituperatively and viciously, causing my friend sleepless nights and painful days.

This friend is about as saintly a person as I know. And I know her husband and her kids, her living situation, her religion—I have even been a guest in her home. (You find out much truth about people when you reside with them for a few days.) On the strength of this considerable acquaintance, I wrote to her to assure her that I was praying for her and that I was confident she was faultless in this relational disaster.

Humbly (of course), she replied that my affection and regard for her was clouding my judgment. Here’s the key phrase:  “I know you know that any counselor worth her salt will tell you that in a conflict situation there is never a faultless party.”

Well, I’m not a counselor. I’m only a theologian. But let’s just think about this for a moment.

Jesus ran into conflicts all the time. Was there fault on both sides? I daresay there was not.

Paul withstood Peter to his face and publicly over a crucial gospel matter. Is there any indication in Scripture that Paul was in any way to blame for that conflict?

The apostles were arrested by the authorities for preaching the gospel, beaten, and imprisoned, and told not to preach any more. They said that they would obey God rather than humans, if they had no other choice. Did they have anything at all about which to apologize?

Stephen was the first martyr, stoned to death for testifying to Jesus. Should he have done something different than he did? Was there fault on both sides of that conflict?

Jesus warns us that we will have enemies. The world hated him; it will hate us likewise. He tells us we will be persecuted “for righteousness’ sake,” that people will “utter all many of evil against you falsely because of me” (Matt. 5:10, 11). That doesn’t sound as if there is any fault we ought to regret.

Okay, one might allow, but you’re no apostle, let alone Saviour of the world.

So let’s look at this from my, which is to say, a completely different, point of view. When I myself get into conflictual situations, there usually is fault on my side. In fact, sometimes it is entirely my fault. When the latter situation obtains, why should the innocent party spend time searching his or her heart for blame? I misinterpreted the situation, I jumped to a wrong conclusion, and I reacted badly. It was my fault, my own most grievous fault, and that is the whole story.

Either way, then, we seem to have significant exceptions to any sort of rule. Therefore, no, I hope any counselor worth his or her salt will not tell you that in a conflict there is never a faultless party. I rather think the situation fairly frequently occurs in which there is indeed an innocent party, and it is helpful to the offender, as well as to the offended, to see things that way if that is in fact what occurred. The offender needs to shoulder all of his or her blame and the responsibility to make things right without finding refuge in even a smidgen of ameliorating self-righteousness (“Well, she wasn’t perfect, either; there’s fault on both sides”). The offended needs to let the offender shoulder it, and not spend time and energy uselessly (and even neurotically) looking for blame where none exists. Sometimes people just treat other people badly, and in those times we need to all just see it, say so, and work for renewed shalom.

We will work for shalom better, that is, if we call things squarely what they are.

And if I’ve offended you by anything I’ve written here, well, that’s entirely your fault.

6 Responses to “Sometimes Fault Really Is on Only One Side”

  1. J.P.

    Point well taken.
    I wonder if instead of both being at fault, your friend made the point of both bringing to the relationship…issues. Knowing what the at fault party’s issue is doesn’t make them less at fault, and may help your friend understand and create shalom.

  2. A.Kirk

    Thank you for this well-needed word of wisdom. I unfortunately do not hear it enough. Many of the psalms and proverbs denounce, for instance, the lying lips and deceitful tongue of those who were persecuting God’s people. Jesus, as you have noted, promises persecution. Sometimes it seems that people think that these passages are either rarely applicable or only relevant for the very ‘saintly’. (And unfortunately, yes, some confuse sound critique with persecution – that is another matter.) Yet, I have seen many examples where women and men who are walking with God experience unjust treatment, where sin has reigned through one person’s actions, and fellow believers respond solely with the caution you have described (‘are you sure you’re not to blame in any way’). When we as the church fail to recognize persecution, we fail to stand in solidarity with a fellow sister or brother, we fail to identify evil as evil and we fail to know Christ (both the power of his resurrection and the participation in his sufferings). People experiencing this persecution need our support and not greater isolation or indifference.

  3. gingoro

    Good post!

    Although I do wonder how much effort we should make to avoid evil situations that are not our fault. I know a couple who moved towns to avoid a situation that was to a very great extent not their fault..

  4. Linda Wightman

    This message could be dangerous, leading the already-self-justified further away from repentance. But it needed to be said. Even when one party is not totally innocent, there is often a great imbalance in wrongs done, and the lesson applies.

    Too often we are encouraged by well-meaning Christians (including ourselves) to concentrate on our own faults in a given situation, and much of the time we need to hear it. That’s not always sound advice, however. Even where the blame is equally shared, it’s probably not helpful for one person to keep apologizing for everything he can think of, if the other person is not reciprocating.

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