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Relationships can be messy, can’t they?

In Acts 13:13 we read the following: “From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John (Mark) left them to return to Jerusalem.” We learn later on in Acts this departure caused Paul a lot of heartburn, so much so that he and his fellow missionary Barnabas eventually parted company over John Mark.

At that time, the early church was booming, miracles were happening, the gospel was spreading everywhere—and right in the middle of all that goodness—we observe relational conflict.

John Mark left Paul and Barnabas hanging in the middle of their missionary journey, but Luke, the author of the book of Acts, said nothing about the reasons why. It’s interesting that Luke—a detail person—left out those details. It seems he wanted to protect the reputation of all three men.

Relationships are messy—even Jesus knew this to be true.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” Every one of us are imperfect creatures who are (hopefully) slowly growing more into Christ-likeness. We’re figuring out how to relate with each other, and occasionally we hurt one another with our words or actions. In Matthew 18:15 it is clearly the offended party who has the responsibility to commence communication with the offender. Jesus didn’t say “keep it to yourself and let your heart become bitter.” Jesus didn’t say “Go and tell someone else.” He says: “If someone wounds you, you go and talk to him about it.”

Relationships aren’t always neat and clean. Wounds happen. Problem is, a significant number of us haven’t figured out how to handle messy. When conflict inevitably happens, instead of making it a matter of prayer, following Jesus’ pathway laid out in Matthew 18; instead of seeing conflict as an opportunity for growth and relational maturity . . . we allow messy to get even messier. Way too often we triangulate. Let me try to illustrate what triangulation looks like:

  • Susie says something she shouldn’t have about her friend Mildred. Instead of Mildred going directly to Susie to resolve the issue, she shares her hurt with Paige. Susie may feel relieved to get this off her chest. But now Paige carries the burden. And as a result, Paige may harbor anger towards Susie. And this is where the real mess starts.

How do we minimize the messiness of interacting with other humans?

Normalize it

If John Mark left Paul and Barnabas, and Paul and Barnabas experienced conflict with each other, who are we to think we will go unscathed? When we normalize conflict, when we accept that human relationships can be messy, we’re not as surprised when it happens.

Zip it

Let’s follow Dr. Luke’s example. Remember . . . Jesus taught that you and I are accountable to Him for the words we speak. When relational messiness occurs, let’s humbly follow Jesus’ formula in Matthew 18. Without humility, it’s difficult to deal with the mess. Let’s use our words wisely.

Refuse to triangulate it

Matthew 18:15-16 give us a way forward when the inevitable messiness of relationships happens. Remember the story of Susie, Mildred and Paige.

  • If you are Paige (who Mildred told about what Susie did), ask Mildred: “Have you talked with Susie about how her words hurt you? Go talk with her ASAP. I’ll be praying for that conversation. In a week I’ll let Susie know she needs to talk to you, only letting her know there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. If Susie and Mildred can’t work it out, offer to help.
  • If you are Mildred (who was offended by Susie), speak with her face-to-face. Adopt a humble posture . . . admit any part you played in the mess. And then go into that conversation prepared to forgive.
  • If you are Susie, and you know you’ve offended Mildred, take the initiative to work things out. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus instructs us: “Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (NIV). Be gracious, apologize for wounding Mildred, and ask for forgiveness. And one more thing: Promise her that it won’t happen again, as far as it depends on you.

How much better would our world be if we acted according to the Biblical prescription here? Exponentially better!

Relationships are messy. But messy doesn’t always have to separate us. Messy can often be a growth opportunity. If you’ve been caught in a relational mess—don’t throw kerosene on the fire! Be biblical. Be mature. Be prayerful. Be healing instead of hurting.

Rooting and praying for you,

John

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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