Many Christians were told as children that all forms of conflict are wrong. Their religious instruction included the command never to respond when others tried to hurt them emotionally with words, physically with fists, or relationally with lies and rumors. They were to accept abuse because it was from God’s hand to form character in them (most notably, humility). When they were bullied at school, they were told they were being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, even when the abuse had nothing to do with morality.
Complicating matters is that many came from homes that either avoided conflict completely. (Or, they witnessed violent and abusive conflict; either way, they never saw conflict handled constructively.) In their environments, conflict was swept under the rug, and they were schooled in the ways of peace-faking, not peacemaking. They didn’t witness how well-handled conflict can bless an individual or an entire family, and they didn’t learn that conflict will be a part of every life lived well. As a result, these children as adults often have disastrous marriages, entered into with naïve beliefs and stunted relational abilities.
In stark contrast to this way of life, both the Old and New Testaments are replete with conflict, often accompanied with God’s approval and favor. However, Paul’s admonishment "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18) has been taken to mean that we should never “disturb the peace.” Here’s something we need to know: this is absolutely true, when it applies to actual peace. Where there is real peace, we are to keep peace. But where there is not peace, we are to make peace, and that can require conflict. Peace is not merely the absence of tumult; peace means that things have been made right, and where they have not been made right, it is wrong to pretend perpetually that there is peace, justice, respect, and goodwill (see, for example, Jeremiah 6:14).
Parents who teach their children that all conflict is wrong are telling their kids that being a punching bag will somehow show others Christian love. True peace, true justice, true respect, and true goodwill become distorted for these kids, and they often become doormats. Even when they reach adulthood, a deceitful boss is likely to sniff them out, employ them, and mistreat them, knowing they won’t speak up or push back. He knows they won’t point out real problems or walk into conflict, because they mistake retaliation for self-defense.
“Turning the other cheek” does not mean we aren’t allowed to defend ourselves. It means, for example, that we are not to return an insult with an insult—it means we aren’t to respond to evil with evil. When I share this with Christian Nice Guys, a palpable sigh usually fills our conversation. Then a common anger, mingled with shame, comes out of men when they think about what they allowed others to do to them without resistance.
As a parent, you’ve probably experienced that doing the right thing in life doesn’t always earn applause. It can cause others to attack you even more. It takes tremendous backbone to stand up to such pressure. The only way you can pass that strength on to your children as you spiritually educate them is by continuing to cultivate it yourself.
When people follow Christ, they become neither pacifists nor Jihadists. We become truth bearers, redemption seekers—bearers of light in a world at war with the Real. We are called to exert our will, in line with God’s, to carry out His purpose on earth. Sometimes this includes conflict. Our participation in God’s redemptive work requires the tougher virtues, such as discipline, perseverance, and fortitude. We are required to use force justly, wisely, and in the service of love, which isn’t always comfortable, pleasant, or nice.
Another hallmark of timid, ineffective living is the teaching that what a person needs to do is “give her problems to Jesus” and then get out of the way. This false premise negates the involvement of her will and her choices in forging spiritual maturity and moral fiber. One man who contacted me for help told me this when I started asking questions that pushed him out of his Nice Guy comfort zone: “Thank you. But all I really need to do is to give my problems to Jesus and let him do the work.” This standard operating procedure of fearful people takes true facts about our faith—in this case Jesus’ desire and ability to help us with our troubles—and manipulates them in order to hide form both terror of conflict and responsibility for actions.
God works with us to help us heal and mature and become more like His Son (e.g., see Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10). His role is indispensable. But so is ours. Augustine described this in saying that man’s will is to God’s grace and direction “as the horse is to the rider.” It takes both to get anywhere. God expects us to take an active role in our lives (e.g., see Matthew 7:5; I Corinthians 10:28; Philippians 2:12-13), through both intent and decisions.
Why are many kids told that their only "spiritual work" is praying and reading their Bibles, and that all else pretty much meddles with what God wants to do in them? Successful people who live abundantly don’t think this way. They understand that their will and their choices have a large impact on the quality of their lives and on their ability to love and bless others. Writes Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at USC:
The enemy of our time is not human capacity, or over-activism, but the enemy is passivity—the idea that God has done everything and you are essentially left to be a consumer of the grace of God and that the only thing you have to do is find out how to do that and do it regularly. I think this is a terrible mistake and accounts for the withdrawal of active Christians from so many areas of life where they should be present. It also accounts for the lack of spiritual growth, for you can be sure that if you do not act in an advised fashion consistently and resolutely you will not grow spiritually. We all know that Jesus said, in John 15, “without me you can do nothing.” We need to add, “if you do nothing, it will be most assuredly without him.”
As we’ve noted, much of today’s Christianity overemphasizes gentle virtues and underemphasizes rugged virtues. The latter are essential in helping children mature in their faith and live abundant lives. Ignoring the broader council of God is spiritual neglect.
One example I give in workshops, seminars, and conferences is among the most potent and haunting statements Jesus made. He said, in sending His followers out into the world like sheep among wolves: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 NRSV). The Greek word for “wise,” phronimos, can likewise be translated as “cunning” or “shrewd.” Jesus wants followers who are streetwise, who
are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior. (Luke 16:9 THE MESSAGE)
Almost sounds blasphemous, doesn’t it? Not getting by on good behavior (complacency)? Not waiting for God’s green light or miraculous intervention (passivity)? Not making sure we have all the right answers before making a decision (timidity)? Aren’t these what being a Christian is all about? According to Jesus, in His own words, no.
Our need for this kind of wisdom—for both followers and leaders—is greater than we realize. Of the thirteen character traits the Barna Group tested for among more than 1,300 Christian leaders, wisdom came in dead last. We are perilously out of balance. Believers, beginning in Sunday school, wrongly have been told that piety alone will pave the road to an abundant, God-glorifying life. Jesus never said this. He wants us to marry virtuous living to wise living.
The problem for many of us is that wise living isn’t always comfortable or pleasant. A wise person is sometimes hard to get along with. And a wise parent sometimes appears mean. Says Marilyn Chandler McEntyre:
One of my husband’s finer moments in parenting came one day when, after he had uttered an unwelcome word of correction to a disgruntled child, he leaned down, looked her in the eye, and said, “Honey, this is what love looks like.” Love, in that case, must have seemed to her a far cry from nice.
Here’s another example. We often preach the virtue of generosity to our children without teaching an end to wise generosity. More so, a time when generosity with valuable things (God’s holy Word, our resources, energy, and talents) is sinful: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces” (Matthew 7:6 NKJV). How can one tell the difference between smart generosity and stupid generosity? You guessed it: the wisdom of serpents, which we aren’t born with. We need to learn more about it so we can practice it—starting in Sunday school.
Why is valuable wisdom so rare? I don’t know all the answers, but I know a few. Wisdom, like humility, helps us see life more clearly. With this clarity comes inevitable decisions: for instance, continue down a sinful path, or repent by turning from lies and move in a God-glorifying direction. The choice seems easy until you count the cost. For many, wisdom is too demanding—it often requires change. We often prefer our illusions.
Virtuous living without wise living is not only wasteful, it may well make you an accomplice to evil, as drug counselors demonstrate when well-meaning family members enable kin to continue their destructive lifestyles. Personal piety may give the impression that we’re doing good works when we really aren’t. Marry virtue to wisdom during the spiritual training of your children; then you’ll truly be giving them the tools they need for a successful life and increase their ability to bless others as well.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.