• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.